Geiger Counters for Quality

October 27, 2010 Leave a comment

|Photo by marcomagrini||

“We don’t talk about what we see,

we see only what we can talk about.”

– Fred Kofman

This week I’ve been rereading Donella Meadows’ Thinking in Systems and really savoring it.  Each time I look at it, I pick up something new, not just about systems thinking but about life in general.  I’ve been focused primarily on Meadows’ chapter “Living in a World of Systems,” which considers how we can work with complex systems while acknowledging that even when we understand them better, we cannot predict or control them.  One of her suggestions is that we learn to pay attention to what is important, not just what is quantifiable.  This is not a question of throwing out what we can quantify as being somehow overly reductionist. Rather, it is a matter of not giving up on what we cannot measure and making quantity more important than quality.  How important this is for our social change work! 

What we measure is often what we give attention to.  It’s what we’ve learned to talk about, and therefore tend to see before anything else.  When we dismiss variables such as justice, love, trust, security and democracy because they are too “squishy,” then we oversimplify our models of the world, leave out vital information, and get only what we are comfortable talking about, which ends up making many of us miserable in the long run!  So we can’t be shy, we have to speak up for what we value.  Or as Meadows puts it, “Be a walking, noisy Geiger counter that registers the presence or absence of quality.”

A push in this direction is the work that we at the Interation Institute for Social Change (IISC) are doing with the Center for Whole Communities (CWC) around Whole Measures.  Whole Measures is a values-based framework for helping organizations and communities navigate the complexity of their social change work and evaluate what matters most to them.  It is a flexible and holistic approach to describing and measuring the relationships and impact change agents seek to create.  IISC and CWC have co-designed a three-day training that we will co-deliver on November 16-18 in Boston.  This workshop combines the collaborative techniques of IISC with the Whole Thinking approach of CWC, including dialogue and storytelling, to help participants work through how best to enroll key stakeholders in shaping and applying Whole Measures to their specific contexts.

But don’t come expecting easy answers or silver bullets.  As Donella Meadows says with respect to dealing with complex human and other systems, we will never completely figure them out, “But we can learn to dance with them.”  So bring your humility, a pair of comfortable shoes and together we’ll make music.

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  • Gibran says:

    Curtis – this is so right on. It feels like these forms of wisdom get articulated, they make sense, persuade some people and then it takes time to integrate them. If feels like we are at a moment when more of us are ready to stand for whole measures, and to reclaim what matters – like the work so many have been doing for so long is ready to become more integral to who and how we are as we go about our work.

  • Curtis Ogden says:

    I agree Gibran. It is so great to feel the resonance for this in a room of grantmakers, both Canadian and American, here in Toronto. Many are committing to reading Meadows, who seems to be surprisingly unknown in the philanthropic sector. Great conversations here about the power of story to convey “results” that are otherwise unquantifiable. Good stuff.

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